Big projects will worsen, not aid plight of rural poor

How can it be that four decades since EF Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered hit the world, the ANC leadership in the Eastern Cape still believes big problems – unemployment, economic decline, drought and poverty – can only be solved by big solutions – the N2 Wild Coast shortcut, Xolobeni mining, Mzimvubu catchment project, fracking the Karoo and the Cradock biofuels project?

Speaking to the Dispatch at the ANC provincial legotla, the party’s provincial secretary, Oscar Mabuyane, championed these projects and called for “hard thinking”. He justified them as being in the interests of “those who are yet to be born”.

There is glaring contradiction between the ideals he espoused and the reality of how “big thinking” economics works in practice. Mabuyane says we need “game changers”. Exactly. Game changers are people inspired to transcend the narrow conformist logic of dominant power holders whose interest is to consolidate their power and privilege.

Game changers act with boldness and courage to question the “received wisdom”, especially when such “wisdom” has proved hollow and dominated by the interests of external stakeholders rather than promoting self-reliance and integral human development.

It is simplistic for Mabuyane to say “differences in communities” are the reason that big “game changer” projects are stalling. They have not got off the ground because they have not come from the ground. They are not rooted in deep aspirations of people living there, but in abstract models of economists who know the “price of everything but the value of nothing”, because they do not understand that the quality of life is not the same as the quantity of consumption.

The top down “big economics” of the Xolobeni Mining project, the N2 greenfields shortcut and the Mzimvubu catchment project will shred the social solidarity fabric that creates social cohesion and resilience in affected communities.

In development there are no such things as problems, only people with problems.

Big problems are not solved by big solutions, but by many small, human scale solutions with people being the protagonists of their own development to better satisfy their fundamental human needs for participation, creation, identity, affection, protection, understanding, freedom and transcendence.

The N2 shortcut through Pondoland will require two big span bridges over the Mtentu and Mazikaba gorges. They will cost more than R2-billion, to be financed by the national Treasury.

Whose needs will they satisfy? Whose interests will they serve?

Not local needs, but the need for drivers in a hurry to get from Durban to East London. The need for an Australian mining company in a hurry to cart off heavy minerals for smelting in East London and then export to China, while forever spoiling the Wild Coast as an eco-tourism attraction.

The impressive bridges will create employment, yes, but employment for highly qualified civil engineers from Gauteng or perhaps Australia or China.

The rural residents on either side of the two gorges have never seen it a priority to travel across these deep gorges.

Their need is for better road infrastructure from the coast to the towns of Mbizana, Flagstaff and Lusikisiki.

If the ANC has the interests of local residents at heart it would make considerably more sense to rather parcel out the treasury’s R2-billion investment into 1000 projects of R2-million each that are scaled to a sustainable human scale – not for big business and big government interests and the convenience of big banks that finance them.

We challenge Sanral CEO Nazir Alli to show where in the world a multi-land toll road has ever developed the people who have had to make way for it.

We challenge MRC’s Mark Caruso and his BEE partners from Xolco, Zamile Qunya and Maxwell Boqwana, to show case studies where the quality of life has improved for the majority of local residents after their ancestral lands have been mined.

We have looked, but have not been able to find a single example anywhere in the world where big solutions have worked for the people who have had to sacrifice their land and traditional livelihoods to make them happen.

These projects might make the national economic indicators look good, and make the national cabinet ministers feel satisfied, but such crude macro-economic models of development do not work.

Likewise the Mzimvubu dam is not for the benefit of Eastern Cape residents. It is to supplement the water flow to Gauteng. Just as the Lesotho Highlands water scheme disrupted rural livelihoods and social cohesion, so will the Ntabelanga and Laleni dams push rural communities off their land to leave their homesteads and migrate to Gauteng, boosting the economy of Gauteng instead of the Eastern Cape.

Politicians must not be blindsided by the rationalisation that the Mzimvubu dam project will solve the big problems of the Eastern Cape.

It will ultimately worsen them.

Hard thinking means re-examining our long held assumptions and reflecting honestly on past experience to open ourselves to truths, however inconvenient they might be.

Hard thinking means suspending our personal, short-term political and financial interests and venturing out of our normal comfort zones in order to listen to and experience reality from the perspective of those who are suffering the most from the “big problems”.

Development cannot be mandated from above. It can only be inspired from below.

Local destinies must be mainly decided locally, not by money and power obsessed people from outside.

We appeal to all ANC members and all other politicians who hope to win votes to listen to your consciences and listen to the poor, before listening to big business interests.

There is a saying in development, “scratch where the people are itching, otherwise you will cause an inflammation”.

Pasika Nontshiza is a land rights activist and independent ward councillor in Mthatha. John Clarke is a social worker, peace activist and writer.


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